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For Federal Agencies: What’s the Big Deal with Big Data? by Steve Krauss

Original post here: Public Spend Forum- the global destination for public procurement by Steve Krauss


“Big Data” is the Big Buzzword in government tech circles these days. At the recent American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in Williamsburg, VA, it was clear that yesterday’s hot topic—movement to the cloud—has already been assimilated into the general understanding of the tech landscape, and it was so-called Big Data that was piquing everyone’s interest. But the question we have to ask ourselves, as we’ve become enamored with this topic, is: What really is the Big Deal about Big Data?

As a fun “etymological detective story” in the New York Times pointed out earlier this year, the term Big Data can be traced back to the mid-1990s. But the idea is nothing new—once upon a time, it was simply called IT business intelligence. When the name first came into the popular vernacular, it signified incomprehensibly enormous datasets suspected to hold secrets of great value, if only we had the tools to tease them out. Today, when we talk of Big Data, we’re generally talking about the ubiquity of data and the tools available to make sense of it and turn it into something of value.

As an International Institute for Analytics paper on the use of Big Data in the private sector put it: “When managers in large firms are impressed by big data, it’s not the ‘bigness’ that impresses them. Instead it’s one of three other aspects of big data: the lack of structure, the opportunities presented, and [the] low cost of the technologies involved.” The same is true in the public sector—“Bigness” is not the quality that is driving continued interest in the topic; it’s the potential to leverage existing data sets to produce meaningful, previously unattainable, results.

Outcomes and ROI

When assessing the data on hand, it’s important to ask two questions: What new outcomes or strategic goals will processing and analyzing this data allow us to achieve? And how do we achieve specific, measurable outcomes and an ROI for the mission of the agency?

The question of ROI is a sticky one for federal agencies, as a recent report from the Partnership for Public Service showed. The report states: “Federal agencies, like companies, are susceptible to the deafening hype about how big data will improve productivity and process. But evidence is beginning to show that the return on big data investments to date is less than promised.” The report recommends getting leadership buy-in from the start, ensuring transparency that allows users to see, combine and analyze data, and facilitating collaboration with experts outside your own organization to avoid some of Big Data’s early pitfalls.

The U.S. Postal Service—one of the presenters at the ELC—is a noteworthy Big Data success story. The USPS was able to analyze the data it had on-hand to identify potential fraud or corruption and accelerate its investigation process. In this case, we have a clearly defined outcome—protecting taxpayer dollars—to which Big Data has been applied to ensure success.

Another great example of how to leverage Big Data in a meaningful way can be found in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Data Initiative. Begun in 2010 with 25 datasets, the initiative—which launched healthdata.gov—now has catalogued more than 1,000 datasets, and made most of these available to the public. One of the key strategic goals for HHS has been to make that data available for entrepreneurs, since the private sector can be an essential partner in fostering innovative ways to make use of the data.

But it’s not just about transparency in terms of letting the private sector leverage that data for apps or business processes; it’s about producing meaningful public outcomes for the public benefit. As the Health Data Initiative founders wrote in their recently released strategic and execution plan: “The mission of the HDI is to help improve health, healthcare, and the delivery of human services by harnessing the power of data and fostering a culture of innovative uses of data in public and private sector institutions, communities, research groups and policy making arenas.… The value derived from sharing and exchange of data will propel problem solving toward creative, cost effective and efficient solutions in areas such as data driven decision-making in health care.”

Big Data Evolves

So this is what it comes to when we talk about Big Data today – unsurprisingly, in an era where the public is increasingly scrutinizing all public expenditures, the value of Big Data, like everything else, will be measured by the tangible results it enables. When the term first entered the vernacular, it carried with it an almost mystical, pseudoscientific air. In the years since, we’ve come to understand Big Data as another tool for agencies to use in bringing value to taxpayers. As we look forward, those who are excited by the technology and/or the potential associated with Big Data will need to pay close attention to the business cases and the ROI they intend to achieve for their agency mission, if they want to maintain the “buzz” that Big Data has generated thus far.

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